By Linn Washington, Jr.
The federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, in a stunning smack at the U.S. Supreme Court, has issued a ruling upholding its earlier decision backing a new sentencing hearing in the controversial case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the convicted killer of Philadelphia Police Officer Daniel Faulkner.
The latest ruling, issued on Tuesday April 26, 2011, upholds a ruling the Third Circuit issued over two years ago siding with a federal district court judge who, back in 2001, had set aside Abu-Jamal's death penalty after determining that death penalty instructions provided to the jury, and a flawed jury ballot document used during Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial, had been unclear.
The U.S. Supreme Court had ordered the Third Circuit to re-examine its 2009 ruling upholding the lifting of Abu-Jamal's death sentence.
The nation's top court had cited a new legal precedent in that directive to the Third Circuit, a strange order given the fact that the Supreme Court had earlier consistently declined to apply its own precedents to Abu-Jamal's case.
The Associated Press was the first to report the Third Circuit's latest dramatic ruling and in fact, as of the morning of the ruling's release, the decision had still not been posted on the appeals court's website.
Abu-Jamal's current lead attorney, Prof Judith Ritter of the Widener Law School, said of the decision, "Each of the four federal judges that has reviewed Mr. Abu-Jamal's case has found his death sentence to be unconstitutional. The Third Circuit's most recent opinion reflects a detailed analysis demonstrating that their unanimous decision is well-supported by Supreme Court precedent. We believe this carefully reasoned analysis will stand."
The Third Circuit's ruling, if left standing, requires Philadelphia prosecutors to call for a whole new sentencing hearing if they want to try and reinstate the death penalty. That would require the impaneling of a whole new jury, to hear and consider evidence regarding mitigating circumstances and aggravating circumstances in the case, and then to decide for either execution of life-without-possibility of parole--the only two options legally available. Abu-Jamal has exhausted his avenues of appeal of his conviction, absent new evidence in the case.
If prosecutors opted against holding new hearing then Abu-Jamal's sentence would be converted automatically to a life sentence, which in Pennsylvania means no chance of parole. Abu-Jamal would have to spending the remainder of his life behind bars, though not on death row.
Experts contend a new sentencing hearing would be problematic for prosecutors. Although the issue of guilt or innocence would not be on trial, the defense could bring in witnesses to explain exactly what they saw happen the night of the shooting--witnesses whose testimony could ultimately raise new questions about the validity of the underlying conviction.
It is almost a certainty that prosecutors will appeal the Third Circuit's latest ruling back up to the Supreme Court. Furthermore, prosecutors concede that current and yet unresolved legal issues in this case, which continues to attract unprecedented international scrutiny, will keep it in courts for years. For example, there are several avenues of appeal of Abu-Jamal's death sentence which were never adjudicated by the Federal District court, which mooted them after the Judge, William Yohn, found in favor of one argument and tossed out the death sentence.
In early April 2011 the NAACP Legal Defense Fund publicly announced it was joining the Abu-Jamal defense team and working with Professor Ritter. NAACP lawyers had joined Ritter last fall during the hearing where she argued the legal point just upheld by the Third Circuit in its latest ruling.
Recently Abu-Jamal recorded yet another birthday (4/24) inside a death row isolation cell. Abu-Jamal and the 222 other Pennsylvania death row inmates spend 23-hours per day every day isolated inside minimalist cells.
Since 1983 Abu-Jamal has languished in the confinement of death row, following his controversial July 1982 conviction for the murder of Officerl Faulkner.